Filmmaker Tommy Reid Talks $uperthief
I Know That Voice, Upcoming Projects, And More!
By Amber Topping
Tommy Reid is the successful filmmaker behind films like Kill the Irishman, Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman and Screwball: The Ted Whitfield Story. His new documentary, $uperthief: Inside America's Biggest Bank Score, is the intriguing true story behind master thief Phil Christopher which is now available to watch on VOD.
Reid took the time recently to talk to REAP about $uperthief, how the popular documentary I Know that Voice was made, what movies resonate with him, advice for aspiring filmmakers (including his three P’s to make it), being a new Dad and what he’s working on next (such as a feature film based on $uperthief written by the writers from NBC’s new hit The Blacklist).
First of all, do you want to talk a little bit about your background and where you interest in film may have come from?
I grew up in New Jersey and basically, I got the film bug when I went over to study finance over in London. A couple of flatmates were studying plays and entertainment, and basically I got the bug and wanted to be a filmmaker when I was a guest over there. My roommates were in certain plays, so I got some entertainment ideas—what would be good for movies—and I came up with some and helped them shape their ideas, and that's kind of when I realized I really had passion for wanting to be a filmmaker.
How did you ultimately get involved with your first projects?
I moved out to Los Angeles after film school. I graduated from Ohio State, and then after that I went to film school to pursue my film aspirations, and basically was a big fan of trying to option books that were on the New York Times Bestseller's List. That is kind of what led me into owning my first book option, which was Kill the Irishman, a true-story novel based on the Cleveland Mafia. I optioned that book and basically pursued it, developed it, wanted to direct it. [I] knew that I was a green filmmaker, but wanted to get into that world. So I basically made a documentary that was later to be the companion piece to the feature film. And that's kind of what led me into my realm to option books to start making into movies.
You've done a lot of feature films, but you've also done quite a few documentaries. What draws you specifically to documentaries?
What draws me to documentaries? I like true stories. I like telling true stories, and to me when you're reading a book, there's basically a foundation of what's going on with the truth. And to me, I always feel like it is great research for me to direct the feature film. Doing a documentary allows me to tap into what's really going on inside that world. So doing documentaries allows me the chance to really uncover what the heart of the story is, what makes that story move forward, and why it is compelling to me. And so I find that doing documentaries allows me to really hone my skills of how I can then elaborate and collaborate with the actors when I do make a feature film because I really understand the nuts and bolts of what the foundation of the story is I want to tell from a documentary.
That's a great idea actually to use a documentary as research to the feature.
Do you prefer working on documentaries or features?
You know, they both have their pros and cons. The thing I like about documentaries is that there's not a big production team. There's a very small team. It's usually a couple producers, the director, and the editor, and you really start shaping the story in post-production with the editor. That's really what it comes down to, is the director and editor's relationship telling the story you want to tell. But when you're producing and in production on a documentary, you're trying to get as much information, as much research as you possibly can to allow you to fulfill all the steps that you need to take to tell the foundation of the story.
So I really like telling documentaries that way, but making movies is much more of a bigger collaboration. You're recreating as much as you possibly can of the truth, but you always have to adhere to the Hollywood ways of telling a story correctly. And that's usually, you know, kind of fudging a little bit of the truth from a true story because you have to adhere to the typical Hollywood ways to make a commercial movie.
So they both have their ups and downs. I mean, I plan on turning the $uperthief documentary into a feature film, and that's going to allow me to be able to articulate my vision to the actors that I want to work with. It’s not going to be 100% accurate like a documentary would be.
For those who don’t know, what is $uperthief: Inside America's Biggest Bank Score about?
Well, it's a captivating firsthand look on the biggest bank burglary in U.S. history that took place in 1972 in Laguna Niguel, California. The way that these thieves broke into the bank, and how they periodically went back for over three nights to make the biggest bank burglary heist possible, was something that hadn't been done at that time period. It was kind of an unorthodox way that they broke into the bank through the roof, and they didn't go after any of the money that was in the bank, but they went after the safety-deposit boxes of the very wealthy in Southern California.
So it's a firsthand look of what made this happen, and how did it work with the thieves themselves. I'm very fortunate to have the actual story subject, Phil Christopher, to still be alive, and to have him open up and express exactly what made him tick, what made him move, what motivated him to really take down this type of bank burglary. And it's much different than a robbery because [in] a robbery, there's somebody's life put in harm's way, whereas a burglary is a Mission Impossible style to a job, or to a heist. It's you against the clock, you against the odds of all these very hard tasks, and to get out of the bank safely and securely without actually hurting anyone, and getting all the loot, if you will.
How did you get Phil Christopher on board? Did it take a lot of convincing, or was he really excited to tell his version of the story from the start?
That's a great question. … I was very fortunate enough to have completed a movie called Kill the Irishman, and along with that movie was the documentary that I produced and directed called Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the [Irishman]. Because he saw that, and he saw how I was so accurate to what the story was and how I told that, he wanted nobody else but me to go and tell his story. Because he was in the same area, the same location, and it was a very highly successful movie for that region of the northeast Ohio, there was nobody else that he wanted to tell his story but me.
Is that how you found out about Phil Christopher's story? While working on the Danny Greene documentary or Kill the Irishman?
Yes, exactly. So what happened was Kill the Irishman was based off of a book, and $uperthief was based off of a book by the same author. The author was telling me that he was writing this book, and when he was done we were on set of Kill the Irishman. He gave me the book, I read it, it was very factual, and I knew that there was much more to the story than was in the book. And to further my research to eventually make a feature film, I wanted to do a documentary—exactly what I did for Danny Green—to learn more about the heist itself, and to learn more about Phil Christopher, who was the mastermind behind this America's biggest bank burglary. So to me, having those steps in order to create a foundation for what the story needed to be told, that's exactly where I went to.
Watching the film, something that I loved about it was how real Phil Christopher felt. He became this human being I could emphathize with despite his past. Do you find it takes the gift of empathy to be able to tell an objective, honest story about figures like Danny Greene or Phil Christopher?
Yeah. Look, at the end of the day, they're criminals. But there's something to be said for the way that they think and what motivates them. Phil Christopher was not a violent burglar. He never wanted to do house jobs; he wasn't a cat burglar. He wanted to basically fight the insurance system. And he knew that if he would take down a bank or a jewelry store that they were insured. They would be covered.
He wasn't hurting anyone. Phil Christopher felt like battling a place, taking over a heist that was insured—that was OK with Phil. He was not OK with going after home burglars and stuff like that, where people could be put in harm's way. He wanted nothing to do with that. He wanted to just go after places that were insured. He felt like the insurance companies were the big thieves in the scheme of things.
Watching the film, you never get the sense that crime pays. Was that intentional on your part?
Yes, that is exactly what I wanted to express. It might pay for the very short term, but at the very end of the day, it's going to take away so many things that life gives you: the opportunity to grow a family, to establish more relationships with your loved ones, your children, your siblings … And by doing crime, you're eventually going to get caught, and it's going to take away those beautiful things that life offers people. And that's what I really wanted to get across that: Does crime pay? It might for a very short term, but these people are addicted to it. They get a high off of making a successful burglary happen. And that to me does not pay in the long run. That's what I really wanted to establish. Great job picking that up! Thank you.
Many of the people you interviewed talked about how charming Phil Christopher is. What was your personal experience with him?
Exactly that. The FBI and the cops warned me, “Be very, very careful. He’s still a capable criminal that could do bad things.” And I was really hesitant to even bring my family around him. And getting to know him, he really was like a big teddy bear, you know? I mean, going into his home, and he had a big food spread for myself and my crew, and it was very easy to talk to him. And he wanted to talk to you, you know? He paid his bit, he paid his time, served his time for all of his crimes; and that was one thing I had to establish with him, with Phil, was that I needed him to trust me.
I was going to ask him some very hard and difficult questions that can't have him Band-Aid or mask any kind of a truth. I needed him to be open and honest, so that way I could get the best story I possibly could, which would later on … I could articulate that to an actor when we do make a feature film off of that. I need to exactly show who he is. And he did show me who he was. And he really is a really genuine, nice person.
You mentioned the feature. How is that moving forward? Is there anything you can share about that?
Yes. The writers who wrote the feature film are some of Hollywood's hottest TV writers right now. They are the writers on the hit new show called The Blacklist on NBC. And they are the writers who lay the foundation of the script, and I just had a big, big meeting with an A-list actor. I can't name their name, but right now we're in discussions to attach him as the lead actor and start attaching an all-star cast to the script. I'm hoping that next year is the year that we can get everything moving forward on it. There is going to be a feature film made.
I can't wait to hear more about it. I think it will be a great movie.
Yeah, there are not too many stories like this anymore that are true. And to have some kind of historical element to it, it's fascinating, you know? I mean, everyone's trying to do remakes, or having a third or fourth version of a sequel to a hit, and there just isn't that much true history that gets exposed anymore. This story to me is something that really needs to be told. I can't wait to bring this to the big screen.
Watching the documentary, you could see all kinds of stories that would work really well in a narrative feature, like the dynamic between Phil and his friend Charlie. Do you think their relationship will be featured in the movie?
Absolutely. Absolutely. You cannot tell the story without the dynamic between Phil and [Charlie] where those are two brothers. And at the end of the day, I have a theme that I follow in the script … which Phil kind of lived by: this “honor amongst thieves” code. And there's no such thing when it comes to these people. Phil was looking over his shoulder, there's very little trust, there's a lot of paranoia that sets in a lot of these thieves. And that comes apparent to the very end of the movie. And in the documentary, you see that at the end … Phil was hurt because he considered Charlie to be his brother [but Charlie] winds up ratting [Phil] out to save his own butt from going to jail.
Let’s talk about I Know That Voice. How did you get involved with that project?
I Know That Voice is a documentary [with] my buddy John DiMaggio [the voice of Bender on Futurama]. … He’s the narrator of $uperthief the documentary and my Danny Greene documentary, and he and I have worked on several projects together. We have a great relationship and a great working relationship. But finally I said to John after $uperthief, I said, "What do you have going on? What do you want to do?" And he said, "I have this idea for a documentary that I've had for a very long time now, and I haven't got a chance to really move it forward. [It’s] just not taking a life of its own. Can I have your help, and you come on and produce it for me?" And when he told me the name of the title, I was hooked right there with I Know That Voice; all about the voiceover industry. And I'm like, "I'm in." Because those actors are such great actors, yet they don't get the exposure and the credit for being everything you hear all around you. Whether it's a toy, a video game, a commercial on the radio, a commercial on television, or your favorite cartoon or animation, that's what they do. And they get so little recognition, and it's such a mysterious industry, and there's such anonymity to who these people are, we wanted to give them their face time. We wanted to expose who they were.
So once John phoned about the opportunity, I put myself into fifth gear, and immediately started making this production go forward. And it was just such a fun, entertaining, and very educational project for myself. I learned a lot about the voiceover industry. I have such respect for these journeymen, these voice actors; they are extremely talented. And they don't get enough recognition [for] what they do. I was very fortunate enough to work with these people and have such a great time making this documentary. It came out Jan. 7 on iTunes, and it has such a huge following. It's actually a very global project. We're getting people from all over. I mean, there's Sweden to Australia to Japan, and we touched upon all these different areas of the voiceover industry that we think it's going to be the go-to documentary for people that want to learn about the voiceover industry …
I can't wait to see it. I've seen the trailer and it looks really, really good.
Thank you. It was a passion piece that John has had for a long time, and I'm very fortunate enough to have such a great friend include me on a project that we could share with everyone else out there.
What movies specifically resonate with you and have they influenced your own style of filmmaking?
Great question. The movies that resonate most with me are movies that have some kind of strong underlying meaning to them. And when I say that, they're usually based on true stories. They're not biographies, if you will, but they're based on some truth to them, whether it's an individual or a certain event that happens in history. I like exposing those types of stories. I'm also a big fan of the gangster, mafia genre. My favorite movies are Goodfellas, Casino, and The Godfather trilogy. I also like almost everything by Michael Mann because they have some kind of action to them. And I really, this goes back to $uperthief, but his movie Thief and the movie Heat have a lot of influence on my vision for how I want to make the feature film. So movies like that, that resonate with me, that have an underlying story for truth to be told really kind of hit home with me. On the opposite spectrum, anything that has a good laugh, and that goes back from an Animal House movie to all the way to Ron Burgundy. That too.
You've worked on all these different films like Kill the Irishman, Strike, Screwball. What were some of your experiences working on these different projects?
It allowed me to experience that filmmaking is a true collaboration. You might be the producer and director, but it takes a whole army to make a movie happen. And I know that to truly be a great filmmaker, you need to allow yourself the opportunity for these other professionals to do what they do best; allow them to be the person that you hire them to be. If they're in wardrobe, or they're in set design, or they're even the head of craft service, you know that you have to allow them to do what they do, which is why you hired them. And that is the true meaning of collaboration.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers in any department, particularly ones going down the independent route?
My advice to them is to never stop because somebody else doesn't know. There's always somebody else that you're going to have to find that's going to say yes. And it's never going to be the first person you talk to. If it is, you're very lucky. But nine out of 10 times, you're going to hear the word no. It’s going to get you down, but you know that you have to fuel yourself back up and keep it going. Today there's such technology out there that allows independent filmmakers the ability to compete with the true professionals. The kids nowadays are using cameras that are cheaper, more high quality, and their editing software they're learning at a very young age … these future filmmakers are going to be given such ability to expose their talents to everyone out there if they just stick with it. And they just persevere because their passion is allowing them to move forward. And to me, I live by the three p’s: perseverance, patience, and passion. If you can obtain those three, there's no doubt you will definitely achieve your goals and what you want to do, which is tell your story. And I say to anyone, just do it. It can be the worst piece of junk that you've just made, but as long as you did it you accomplished the one thing, which is making a story happen. That to me tells everyone that you're willing to put in the time, the dedication to do it, because if everyone could do this, it'd be saturated. If you're the type of person that's going to persevere after all the crap out there, if you will to really tell your story—and I tell everyone out there to stick with it—eventually, you'll get your time. If I would have given up on Kill the Irishman, I never would have told that story. It took me 13 years to tell that story.
Do you have any other upcoming projects REAP can look forward to supporting?
Yes. I am on this great new web series that we hope to be a television series called My Life as a Dad that I am producing and directing. And our executive producer, Robert Nichol, who's also the host of My Life as a Dad, interviews celebrity dads on different stages of being a father, from expecting dad to new dad to active dad, and to the old Archie Bunker/Bill Cosby dad (the experienced dad) … He interviews them to capture the essence of what it is to be a dad, what lessons did they learn, what advice do they have ... what was the biggest influences that they have on being a dad from their dads to being who they are as a dad in the present stage. It's a great new series that we're creating; we're building out four different steps right now, and we're going to put it on the Daddy Scrubs Youtube Channel … Being a new dad myself, having a 15-month-old son is something I have true passion for. Because had I had a show or a web series that allowed me to learn a bit more about what it takes to be a good dad in your wife's eyes and your kid’s eyes, I would tune in for those little three-to-five-minute clips to just hear other fathers, some of their advice, some of their stories that they went through, some of their influences that they had on themselves, and why they are who they are today.
I'm actually really excited about My Life as a Dad because … it’s more or less a parenting, a family type of content, which is what I'm really getting into now. Because that's who I am, you know? I'm a new dad, and it's the most exciting time of my life, and I want to be the best dad I possibly can for my son and my future children. And that's kind of my new aspiration to really get into the parenting, family world, and making content that goes towards them and helps them become better parents, better dads. And to expose stories and issues that are facing these people today.
What's the best way for people to follow your projects and keep up to date on everything?
I would follow … my Youtube Channel: Dundee Entertainment. I would follow … my website: dundeeentertainment.com—that usually will have some updates. And by following My Life as a Dad, you'll see some of the new projects and the people that we're working with.